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Insights from Deborah Roth Grabein on the Value of Fractional Executives

The traditional executive role is being redefined. The concept of fractional or interim executives is gaining traction, providing organizations with the flexibility and expertise they need without the long-term commitment of a full-time hire. To shed light on this emerging trend, we spoke with Deborah Roth Grabein, who recently served as the Interim CEO for Family Houston, a nonprofit organization that has been serving the Houston community for over 120 years. Her insights offer valuable lessons for both nonprofits and businesses considering this innovative approach to leadership.

With a background in law firm marketing, communications, and business development, Deborah has honed her skills working with top legal professionals across the country. Her journey with Family Houston began on the board, where she served for nearly seven years, including a two-year tenure as board chair during the challenging COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2023, when the CEO of Family Houston stepped down, the board chair approached Deborah and asked if she would consider serving as the Interim CEO until a permanent replacement was found. “Given my deep familiarity with the organization, having served on the board for nearly seven years, I felt prepared to take on this challenge. I transitioned from my board role and stepped in as Interim CEO, serving for nearly a year before smoothly handing over the reins to the new CEO,” Deborah recounts.

Fractional executives bring specialized skill sets, adaptability, and flexibility

“Typically, a fractional/interim role is for a defined period, allowing the organization to keep moving forward and ensuring that work gets done,” she says. “Often, these individuals have experience working in larger organizations and can be very helpful to start-ups and small organizations.”

The role of a fractional or interim executive can differ significantly from that of a full-time executive. They can support multiple organizations simultaneously, making their extensive experience and skills available to a broader range of entities.

A significant advantage of hiring a fractional executive is the cost savings.

Fractional executives offer a cost-effective solution for organizations, providing top-tier expertise through contract positions without the financial burden of full-time hires. This arrangement allows organizations to access specialized talent, test the waters for a good fit, and address specific needs without committing to long-term employment. Deborah points out that many smaller nonprofits particularly benefit from this approach, as they often do not require or cannot afford a full-time executive-level position.

“There is a lot of talent available in the marketplace, and nonprofits need to be creative in tapping into those skills and experience.”

Leverage specialized expertise for project-specific needs.

“If a nonprofit is hiring someone for a particular project, using a fractional/interim executive allows them to hire someone with the specific experience and skills to complete the project,” Deborah notes. In addition, with the flexibility of remote work, organizations can hire the perfect candidate for the job, regardless of their location.”

The key to navigating challenges of an interim role is clear communication and understanding of organizational goals.

“Make sure the team knows why you are there, your goals, and what changes will happen, if any, under your leadership,” she advises. “If the organization has undergone or is undergoing significant change, it’s critical to have quality time with your stakeholders.”

She also stresses the importance of thorough documentation and ensuring a smooth transition for her successor.

For nonprofits considering this approach, Deborah offers some practical advice:

  1. Define the Role Clearly: Understand the goals, resources needed, and challenges the executive might face. Ensure clear communication lines.
  2. Cultural Fit: Ensure the person has the requisite experience and will also be a cultural fit.
  3. Contractual Agreements: Have a clear service agreement outlining compensation, roles, responsibilities, and duration.
  4. Celebrate Successes: Acknowledge small and big wins to motivate the team and make them feel recognized for their efforts.

Just Do It!

“The world is changing so quickly these days. Post-COVID so much is in transition with technology, staffing, work environments, etc. Sometimes, stepping out to do something differently is daunting, but using a Fractional Executive could be just the right thing to provide a new perspective and to get work done.”

If you’re looking to harness the expertise of a fractional executive to drive your organization forward, we at Cultivate & Engage are here to help. Our team of seasoned professionals is ready to provide the strategic support you need to achieve your goals. Contact us today

About Deborah

Deborah Roth Grabein is a distinguished professional known for her for her expertise and contributions in the legal marketing and business development profession. With a career spanning over 30 years, Deborah is a recognized leader and innovator, consistently driving results, fostering team development and leading new initiatives. She is a Senior Fellow Class XLVII of the American Leadership Forum.

Throughout her career, she has held pivotal roles at many law firms including Winstead, Andrews Kurth and Hunton Andrews Kurth where she spearheaded numerous successful projects and initiatives. She most recently served as the Interim CEO for Family Houston, a 120-year-old nonprofit based in Houston, Texas. Deborah holds a B.A. from Southern Methodist University.

Beyond her professional achievements, Deborah is dedicated to organizations focused on elevating women and families. Her philanthropic work ranges from board service for Family Houston and NewSpring to supporting Girls Empowerment Network.

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